CHARLOTTE, NC (Ann Doss Helms/The Charlotte Observer) - Can a laptop replace a classroom?
Online classes have become common. They expand the course offerings at any given school or help students get through a medical crisis without falling too far behind.
But can virtual school offer the whole package, a long-range alternative to the kind of schools that have buses and desks and cafeterias? That's a pressing question for North Carolina's public education system, one that pioneering educators, students and families are trying to settle.
"I find myself proving that this is still real school. Like no, I'm not just at home all day watching TV, playing with my dog," says Milan Carter, a student at Charlotte-Mecklenburg's eLearning Academy.
Over the last few years, eLearning Academy has evolved from a tiny program that helped students fill gaps in traditional education to an actual high school, albeit a small one. It got its first teachers this year, has an active PTSA and recently graduated its first student who attended eLearning all four years.
"It proves education can happen any time, any place, anywhere," said Principal Tracy Pickard.
Meanwhile, state officials are trying to decide whether two virtual charter schools, N.C. Connections Academy and the N.C. Virtual Academy, should become a permanent part of the state's educational menu. The schools are in the third year of a four-year pilot program, which requires state lawmakers' approval to continue past 2019. This year about 4,000 students in grades K-12 are signed up.
In North Carolina and across the nation, debate has raged about the strengths and weaknesses of online education. Criticism has focused on high student turnover, weak academic performance and the involvement of for-profit companies. A 2015 national review of online charter schools by three research institutions found the online students underperforming counterparts in traditional public schools, especially in math.
Besides the convenience for students, North Carolina's online charter schools come at lower cost to taxpayers. According to the latest state report cards, the two online charters received about 30 percent less per pupil than the state average, with the biggest gap in the amount provided by local government. The CMS average is close to the state average, but there's no school-by-school breakdown.
The CMS virtual high school is small enough – about 250 students now, double last year's enrollment – and new enough that there's no conclusive data on results. Unlike the charter schools, there's no management company involved. And its students have fared better than online charter counterparts on state exams: Last year eLearning Academy earned a B from the state, while both virtual charters earned a D.
Ironically, the CMS online high school faces a turning point connected to its physical location. It's currently in the old Villa Heights school, which is slated to become an elementary school in August. Parents recently appeared before the school board to ask for a new, central location where students can gather when they want teacher support or peer companionship.
Superintendent Clayton Wilcox says he's looking at options, including the possibility of multiple sites to boost convenience. But he acknowledges that would pose new questions, such as how to assign faculty.
While Wilcox isn't sure exactly how online school will shake out, he says it's not a fleeting fad.
"I absolutely think that school districts that don't embrace a big view of elearning are going to find themselves in trouble. You only have to look at other industries to realize that," Wilcox said recently.
How does it work?
Students at eLearning take their core classes through a company called Edgenuity, which has a contract with North Carolina. Electives are provided through the North Carolina Virtual Public School, which was created to extend offerings at traditional schools. And if students still need something more, the staff works with them to find it. For instance, a 10th-grade math whiz uses video conferencing to take part in a calculus class taught at the state's selective School of Science and Mathematics, a boarding school in Durham.
Students do the work at the time and place of their choosing. School officials can track not only what they've completed and how well they've done, but when they're logged on and actively using the programs. In other words, signing on and switching over to watch YouTube videos doesn't count.
"Just because we don't see them does not excuse them," Pickard says.
She says online school doesn't work for everyone. Students who are failing at a regular school because they're unmotivated aren't likely to do any better at eLearning Academy, she said. And just like at any other school, having engaged parents helps. Parents get frequent updates on how their kids are doing, and alerts if they fall behind.
Robin Wallace, the mother of a current eLearning student and a 2017 graduate, says she's amazed at the interaction she and her kids get – not just the automated stuff, but real-time personal contact.
"I don't know when anyone ever sleeps," Wallace said of the eLearning faculty. "They'll text, they'll email, they respond to the kids."
Some eLearning Academy students are deeply involved in activities that don't mesh well with a traditional school schedule. For instance, the first student to complete all four years there was Olympic gymnast Emily Schild.
Milan, a sophomore, is a ballerina whose dance classes often run late into the evening. She cringed at getting up for a 7:15 a.m. starting bell, but thrives under her own schedule, logging on around 10 a.m. and working around her other activities.
"I really love learning, but I did not like school," she says. "Now I can travel and take longer breaks with my family. I feel like I kind of have a life now."
Her classmates include students devoted to flying airplanes and riding horses, as well as those who struggled in traditional school because of medical problems or other personal issues.
Private online schools also offer an alternative for students who need flexibility – though like traditional private schools, they charge tuition that can run into the thousands.
Christian Eckes of Cornelius, a 17-year-old competitive driver, enrolled in George Washington University Online High School after his older sister got accepted into the university in Washington, D.C. He attended regular public schools through eighth grade, but says the online school allows him the track time he needs to pursue a career in NASCAR.
Tiana Justice turned to a private online high school when her juvenile arthritis made it tough to keep up at Mallard Creek High. She enrolled in Enlightium Academy, a private online Christian school based in Washington state. But she struggled with some classes, such as calculus, and worried that officials there didn't understand North Carolina's graduation requirements.
She switched to eLearning Academy about a year and a half ago, and got so engaged that her classmates elected her to serve as their representative on the superintendent's student advisory council. From there, student advisers from all CMS high schools chose her to be their representative to the school board.
"I've become more motivated, more self-driven," she says of her online education. "It's done a lot of stuff for me that I know I'm going to need in the future."
Real people matter
When students and parents talk about eLearning Academy, they rave about the convenience of online learning, but also about the human touch. Pickard gets rave reviews from families.
"Ms. Pickard knows every single one of these students. She knows their stories, why they're here," says parent Elizabeth Sigmon.
Students have always been able to consult with teachers online, but the addition of four flesh-and-blood teachers means students can come in for face-to-face consultations. Pickard and her faculty have also tried to create opportunities for students who want a school-based social life to find it at eLearning.
Real-life get-togethers have included college tours, a Crowders Mountain hike, service projects and award ceremonies. This year's seniors are planning a class trip. There are class rings, and last year students held a prom/dinner dance.
Pickard rejoiced when a student recently got a puppy and suggested it should be the school mascot. That's the kind of school spirit she yearns to see.
"Our goal is to literally build a school without walls," Pickard says.